In what was described as the biggest art theft since the 1911 robbery of the “Mona Lisa,” two men posing as police officers gained entry to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum early yesterday, restrained two security guards and left with an estimated $200 million worth of art, police said.
The works stolen included paintings by Jan Vermeer, Rembrandt and Edgar Degas, museum officials said.
In a daring, middle-of-the-night robbery, police said, the two men knocked on a side door of the world-famous Gardner in Boston’s Fenway section at about 1:15 a.m. and told the security guards there was a disturbance in the area, and were allowed to enter.
Police and FBI officials said the men then overcame the guards, tied them with tape and spent about two hours in the museum, stealing 12 art objects.
Acting curator Karen Haas said the $200 million estimate is conservative and the worth of the stolen works may be “hundreds of millions of dollars.” She said they are considered priceless because they have not been on the market for nearly a century, and their value to private collectors is unknown.
Measured by the potential value of the art, the theft was considered the biggest ever in the United States, and perhaps the greatest ever verified for any crime, according to law enforcement officials, art experts and records kept on crime and art theft.
The stolen items included masterpieces such as Vermeer’s “The Concert,” two Rembrandts, “A Lady and Gentleman in Black,” and the museum’s most popular piece, “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” both done in 1633.
Also taken was a self-portrait etching by Rembrandt, but not his more famous oil self-portrait in the same room. Haas, despondent after the theft, said she had no idea why certain works were taken.
Also stolen was the work entitled “Landscape with an Obelisk,” until recently attributed to Rembrandt but now thought to have been done by one of his students, Govaert Flinck. Five works by Edgar Degas, an Edouard Manet oil, and a Shang Dynasty Chinese bronze beaker from 1200-1100 BC were also taken.
Other works and pieces at the museum, which houses an eclectic, permanent exhibition and masterpieces by Western and Asian artists, medieval tapestries and original works by Sandro Botticelli, John Singer Sargent, and Raphael, and Titian’s acclaimed “The Rape of Europa,” were left untouched.
The Gardner, which occupies an entire block on the Fenway near the Massachusetts College of Art, is considered one of the world’s best museums, although it often is overshadowed by the nearby Museum of Fine Arts, where a Claude Monet exhibit is luring thousands of visitors.
Boston police were called to the scene shortly after a maintenance worker discovered the two guards at about 7 a.m. Police contacted the FBI, which has art experts on its staff.
Thomas Hughes, the FBI agent in charge of the investigation, said he could not reveal details about the robbery, including how the security system, including alarms and cameras, was foiled.
“We will be looking at what system was in place, how it operated, if it was bypassed and how it had been bypassed,” Hughes said. He also said that while investigators believe there were two thieves involved, “there might well be more.”
The two guards were questioned extensively. Law enforcement sources said investigators are trying to learn whether the robbery was staged in order to ransom back the heavily insured objects, or to sell them to a private collector, since they are considered unmarketable otherwise.
FBI agent Paul Cavanagh said, “This is one of those thefts where people actually spent some time researching and took specific things. The job was a professional job.”
Hughes would not identify the names or ages of the guards, but Haas said the Gardner hires and trains its own security staff. Yesterday morning, with FBI and police inside the museum, several men who said they were guards stopped to talk with reporters but would not discuss museum security.
News of the theft shook art experts and stunned museum officials. Constance Lowenthal of the International Foundation for Art Research in New York, which tracks stolen artworks, said the robbery “is the biggest Old Master theft in this country by far.”
She said, “The Gardner Museum is a treasure house. Everything in it is exceedingly valuable and first-rate and superb.”
Peter Sutton, curator of European paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, said the works were “enormously valuable and important historically.”
The prices paid for valued art works have increased dramatically in recent years. The record purchase price of a work of art is $53.9 million paid for Van Gogh’s “Irises,” by Australian businessman Alan Bond in 1987. The record for a Rembrandt is $10.3 million at auction in 1986 for his “Portrait of a Young Girl Wearing a Gold Trim Cloak.”
An FBI source said the agency believes the crime was the most lucrative ever in the United States, well ahead of an $11 million armed-car theft in Connecticut in 1985. The biggest crimes in Massachusetts were the $2.8 million Brink’s robbery in 1950 and the $1.5 million Plymouth mail van robbery in 1962.
The biggest art thefts reported were a 1989 robbery in the Netherlands of three Van Gogh paintings worth an estimated $72 million and a 1988 theft in Amsterdam of three other Van Goghs and two other works with a total valuation estimated at $52 million.
In 1911, the “Mona Lisa,” perhaps the most valuable object ever stolen, disappeared from the Louvre in Paris. It was recovered two years later and a
suspect arrested. The greatest robbery on record was purportedly $3 billion stolen from the German Reischsbank, following Germany’s collapse in 1945, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Unlike other museums, which often have rotating exhibitions, the Gardner collection was permanent. It was assembled by Isabella Stewart Gardner, a famous turn-of-the-century figure who lived in what is now the museum. The stolen works had been there since 1903, Haas said.
“These are some of the masterpieces,” Haas said. “It’s a very sad feeling.”
The Vermeer and the Rembrandts are considered far more valuable than the Degas works stolen.
Although Hughes would not say how the works on canvas were taken, law enforcement sources said they appeared to have been cut out of their frames. Hughes said the museum has “state of the art security.” Visitors are not allowed to carry coats in the building, which has a four-story atrium and a courtyard where Emperor Nero’s chair can be seen.
Visitors yesterday were met by handwritten notes indicating the museum was
closed. Haas said she didn’t know when it will reopen.
Hughes said, “What is very, very important right now is to let the public know what articles were taken from the museum in the event they can be recovered at a later date, or anybody having any information at all about the robbery or the art treasures, where they might be, or if an attempt is being made to sell them or pass them on, to get in touch with the FBI or the Boston Police Department as soon as possible.”
He added, “We will be following out every lead to get these art works back and solve this robbery.”
The museum was opened in 1925, a year after Gardner’s death, and has 15 galleries connected by hallways, leading to rooms filled with paintings, sculptures, furniture, tapestries and letters from her friends and famous figures. The building is a glass-topped palace in the Venetian style and was completed in 1903, and holds a lifetime’s work of collecting art and letters ranging from ancient Greece to the 19th century.
Despite the theft, Haas said museum officials were more concerned about the art items than the security system in place. She said the Vermeer was the only work by the Dutch painter in New England and said even casual visitors to the museum would probably know the most valuable works.
Haas, who has worked at the museum for 12 years, said the works had become like “old friends” to her. “It’s shocking, we’re very sad. All I can say is we want these photographs and images to be recognized by people.”
She added that the Vermeer is priceless “and a very important part of our collection.” The Rembrandts were also very prized, she said, especially since ‘‘The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” was his only seascape.